Putting the liberal back into liberal conservative

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 5 April 2012 in Diary
With Clegg wading into the controversy over civil liberties, are we seeing a long overdue reassertion of Liberal Democrat presence in the coalition government?

Are we seeing the beginning of a greater Lib Dem presence in the coalition? In an article for the London Review of Books, Ross McKibbin paints a bleak picture for the future of the Liberal Democrats. Attacking the coalition as a whole, the Lib Dems for their side-lined role and in particular party leader Nick Clegg, McKibbin claims that “as things stand they will be lucky to win a seat” in 2015.

However, what the author is unable to take into account are the events of the past few days. The announcement that the government are considering storing details of personal communications was met with widespread dismay from both left and right. Not only had David Cameron attacked the then-Labour government for similar policies when in opposition, but this was supposed to be a 'liberal conservative' government. How could Clegg possibly hope to sell his own party the notion that the Lib Dems had benefited from the coalition if they could not even uphold what was supposed to be an area of common ground, but one which was particularly central to the agenda of the junior coalition partners?

At the very same time, the issue of ‘secret’ court hearings for cases involving sensitive information has raised similar questions over the coalition’s commitment to civil liberties. So, having previously contented himself with behind-the-scenes negotiations over policy, Clegg realised that both his party and the public now required a more visible statement of intent. In that vein, he has come out fighting on both issues. He has sought to assure doubters by claiming that the ‘snooping bill’ is only “in draft” form, indicating sufficient opposition would allow for a raft of changes to the initial proposals. Similarly, in a leaked letter to cabinet colleagues Clegg is said to have demanded changes to the plans for ‘secret justice’.

Last week was a disaster in PR terms for the government, but more so for the Conservative Party. Friday’s by-election defeat in Bradford West ensured that severe doubts still remain over Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party.

If the Lib Dems are to stand any chance of respectability, let alone success, at the next election, voters will have to be sold on a narrative that is as yet wholly unconvincing. Clegg must present them as the only trustworthy, responsible alternative to Cameron’s ‘nasty tories’ and a fiscally irresponsible Labour Party led by whoever it is in charge of the opposition by 2015.

The first two years of this government have seen public faith well and truly tested, most notably over tuition fees. Taking the government to task for proposals that threatened our civil liberties was once commonplace for Clegg and co. Now, though, it seems a brave move to allay party fears and force a compromise when so often this coalition has appeared united on the centre right.

Clearly the issue prompted a reaction within his party which Clegg could no longer ignore. However, if this becomes just the start of a reassertion of Lib Dem presence then that can only be a good thing. The Lib Dems’ fate in 2015 will inevitably be tied to the success of the government’s economic agenda; what they must ensure is that they are not an irrelevance. As McKibbin puts it, “unless something is done to halt the general impression that the Lib Dems are Tory poodles the future is neither bright nor orange”.

Tags: Liberal Conservatism, Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg

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